“What is Reformed theology?” This is the question I get asked all the time. Especially since I teach at a school called Reformed Theological Seminary!
While there are many ways to answer that question, I have found that the 5 Solas of the Reformation provide one of the best summaries of what it means to be Reformed: sola scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).
Since the 5 Solas are borne out of the Protestant Reformation, then it would not be surprising to know that, in many ways, they reflect the circumstances of the time period in which they were formulated. Each of the solas are a response to what the Reformers saw as problematic in the Roman Catholic church of their day.
As an example, sola scriptura—the affirmation that the Scriptures are the highest and only infallible authority—is an obvious response to the Roman Catholic claim that the church (and church tradition) should be seen as equally authoritative as Scripture.
But here’s the thing. Some misunderstand the 5 Solas as merely a response to Roman Catholicism and nothing more. In other words, they are viewed as a time-bound, historically conditioned set of affirmations that are largely applicable to an era that is long gone.
It is precisely here that I want to offer a bit of pushback. Let me suggest that the 5 Solas are much more than a response to Catholicism. On the contrary, they are a response to the universal tendencies of fallen human hearts everywhere. Put differently, the 5 Solas are inherently counter-cultural. They run contrary to the average human intuition about the way life (and religion) ought to be.
Let me explain:
1. Sola Scriptura. As noted, sola scriptura obviously was designed to counter Roman Catholic claims about church tradition. But it is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, pushing back against the universal human tendency to replace God’s authority with human authority. One might say that all of redemptive history is marked by humans swapping God out for mere creaturely authorities (Rom 1:21-23). To sum up, sola scriptura fights against idolatry.
2. Sola Fide. Of course, sola fide is an obvious reply to the Catholic mixing of faith and works as the means of justification. But it is more than this. It fights against the inclination inside each one of us towards meritorious works-righteousness. Humans want to earn their salvation so we can feel good about ourselves. In contrast, the Reformers insisted that faith, and faith alone, is the sole instrument of our justification. To sum up, sola fide fights against legalism.
3. Sola Gratia. One question that was debated during the Reformation was “How sinful are we?” Are we merely “sick” in our sins, or “dead” in our sins? Luther addressed this precise issue in his Bondage of the Will. If we are dead in our sins, then it takes a supernatural act of God’s grace to awaken us. To sum up, sola gratia fights against humanism (the idea that humans are inherently good).
4. Solus Christus. One of the major critiques of Catholicism during the Reformation was that it undermined the sufficiency of Christ in salvation. His work was not enough to save (it had to be combined with other acts, and even other “mediators”). But, the battle cry of solus Christus was more than a response to Rome. It basically argues that Christ, and Christ alone, is the only way to heaven. There are no other saviors. To sum up, solus Christus fights against pluralism (that all religious pathways are valid).
5. Soli Deo Gloria. If we are saved by God’s grace, the Reformers insisted that all glory must therefore go to God, and not to man. And we should, in turn, glorify God in all aspects of our life—in our worship, but also in our vocations. And that principle is bigger than just a counterpoint against Catholicism. It is about letting go of our glory, and living for God’s glory. To sum up, soli Deo gloria fights against pride.
Our point here is that the solas are much more than a counter to Roman Catholicism. They are instead a counter to the human heart everywhere. The solas basically argue against idolatry, legalism, humanism, pluralism, and pride. And those things need to be battled in every generation.
It is precisely here that we see how Christianity is unique among all the religions in the world. The solas show us that Christianity does not look like a religion that any human being would have made up. And that is a reason to think that it just might be from God after all.